Many people view church groups as a "safe place" where there will be no disputes among believers. This type of environment existed in the earliest days of the New Testament church. The time of no recorded disputes, however, lasted only until Acts 5! Ananias and Sapphira sold their property, claimed to give it all to God, but kept back a secret stash for themselves and lied about it. The penalty for their behavior was instant death. It was a swift judgment that warned others to take Christianity seriously (Acts 5:1 - 13).
Sadly, many people today do not attend any group because of offenses and disputes encountered there. That is not what God wants for his people! There are alternatives! It would be better for brethren to either 1) work to solve the problems in their church group, 2) ignore the problems and concentrate on other good work they can do there, 3) join a different group or 4) start a new group.
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near (Hebrews 10:24 - 25, ESV).
Why God Allows Disagreements
Why does God allow disputes among his people to happen? If He supernaturally intervened to kill Ananias and Sapphira, He certainly could have caused them to just leave the. He, however, allowed this problem and many others to occur so believers can grow and prepare to reign with Christ at His return (2Timothy 2:12).
Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world will be judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest matters? (1Corinthians 6:1 - 2, NKJV).
The full impact of Paul's statement above is hard to grasp, but unmistakable. His point is that believers in Jesus should be more skilled at resolving disagreements among people than the judges and lawyers of this world! Paul goes on to make this simple recommendation for dispute resolution.
I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you, not even one, who will be able to judge between his brethren? (1Corinthians 6:5, NKJV).
The above should be all that is necessary to settle a dispute. Brethren should realize that they all hope to leave together in peace in the kingdom of God. If they have a disagreement, they can simply agree upon an unbiased believer to hear them out and make a righteous decision. Even in the Old Testament, God bound people to abide by the decisions of human judges (Deuteronomy 17:9 - 12).
Jesus' Dispute Resolution Formula
Jesus Christ gave a dispute resolution formula that works in virtually any situation. The problem is, many church brethren refuse to use it. When it is used, however, it works exceedingly well.
Good justice systems must resolve legitimate disputes in favor of the deserving person, as well as prevent harming the innocent by misuse of the system. Misuse includes taking disputes to the wrong jurisdiction (Luke 12:13 - 14), asking for what does not rightfully belong to someone (1Kings 3:22 - 27) and making false accusations to use the justice system to destroy one's enemies (1Kings 21:1 - 14, Mark 14:55 - 59).
Jesus' formula in Matthew 18:15 - 17 addresses all of these issues mentioned above as seen in the below three step process he taught.
Step 1 - Resolve it privately
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother (Matthew 18:15 ESV).
Sadly, when most people have a complaint against a fellow believer, the first people they tell is their friends or a church leader. Jesus said to go directly to the person and attempt to resolve the disagreement privately. This keeps it confidential. If the problem is a misunderstanding, it can be resolved and go no further.
It is good to think about resolution in the reverse direction. If somebody has a complaint against you, do you want him or her to talk to you about it or to tell lots of other people first? If a problem is not important to take it to your brother, then it is not worth telling others about.
You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people . . . You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him (Leviticus 19:16 – 17, ESV).
Step 2 - Resolve it with two others
But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses (Matthew 18:16, ESV).
The purpose of witnesses is to hear and understand the arguments put forth by the two people involved in a dispute. Many people want to resolve their issue before this stage because they at least suspect that their assertions are unreasonable and they are relatively sure the witnesses will figure that out. Others may not realize they are unreasonable until they actually have to explain themselves to witnesses.
While such witnesses are not judges, a person unable to explain himself to neutral people usually realizes he will not be able to explain himself to those who are judging. When a person realizes their error at this stage, they usually want to resolve the problem quickly.
Step 3 - Resolve it before many
If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church . . . (Matthew 18:17, ESV).
The possibility of an entire congregation becoming aware of someone's mistakes may motivate them to resolve their problems before this step is reached. The term "church" here obviously refers to the local congregation and not the entire body of believers worldwide.
In a small congregation of a couple dozen people, everyone in the congregation who is willing to participate could meet together, before or after their regular service, to consider the disagreement. In larger groups, however, it probably would be best if elders in the church (those who are older and wiser, not necessarily those who are "ordained") were the only ones to judge the matter at hand.
Public resolution of disputes is a good thing. One never knows what evidence the brethren can contribute. For example, someone may recall that one of the people involved in the disagreement had the same issues with brethren when they attended another group.
There is a tendency for some fellowships to resolve all their members' disputes exclusively through their paid leadership. This does not allow the brethren to grow and does not teach them to have faith in God. Worse yet, some church leaders place little emphasis on facts and righteous judgment, but attempt a quick and quiet resolution to maximize their membership and money.
And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector (verse 17).
Removal from a congregation is the only "punishment" taught in the New Testament. The hope is, of course, that the person will repent and return to the group. At the very least, this action will bring peace to the church by removing those who cause unnecessary disputes.
Drive out a scoffer, and strife will go out, and quarreling and abuse will cease (Proverbs 22:10, ESV).
Anyone who handles disputes or disagreements among their fellow Christians using the above method can feel confident that he has done what God has commanded.
Is it possible that a person will be falsely accused or wrongly judged of a dispute through the process delineated above? Yes. Sometimes God may intervene, and sometimes He does not do so immediately. Diotrephes sent true brethren out of the church but John promised to deal with him (3John 1:9 - 10). It can be a blessing to be sent out of a corrupt congregation.